Patrick Donabedian – “The Khachkar Is The Tree Of Life”

Patrick Donabedian – "The Khachkar

On June 15, 2017, an exhibition of photographs dedicated to the unique art of khachkars (cross-stones) opened in UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

Khachkar is a type of Armenian architectural monument in the form of a stone stele with a carved image of a cross. In total, there are several thousand cross-stones in the territory of Armenia, and each is distinguished by its unique pattern.

In November 2010, the art of creating khachkars was included in the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list.

Patrick Donabedian is a former diplomat and now professor, lecturer at the University of Aix-en-Provence, a specialist in the history and culture of Armenia, and author of numerous books. In 2017, he was one of the organizers of the photography exhibition at UNESCO in Paris.

RFI: This exhibition is called “Khachkars.” It was organized in coordination with the leadership of UNESCO together with the Armenian Embassy in France and with your direct participation since you’ve selected photos, and you are the author of the catalog. Tell me, please, what are khachkars?

Patrick Donabedian: Khachkar is a stone with a depiction of a cross. In Armenian, “khachkar” means “cross-stone”.

RFI: What is interesting about these cross-stones?

Patrick Donabedian: They are very diverse. The first, the oldest ones were quite simple. Their decorations were simple – the cross was a dominant theme. But over the centuries, this ornamentation has been enriched – various braids, plant ornaments have appeared, and the cross itself has also been enriched. But from the very beginning, the most characteristic thing has been that the cross is a plant element – that is, it is a tree of life.

RFI: And when the history of the khachkar can be traced from?

Patrick Donabedian: The khachkar phenomenon appeared at the end of the 9th century. After the adoption of Christianity in Armenia, other types of monuments of this kind appeared – small crosses. But such large stone slabs depicting a cross appeared only in the 9th century.

RFI: What time do the khachkars featured in the photos presented at the exhibition at UNESCO date back to?

Patrick Donabedian: This exhibition presents materials from all stages of the development of this art, starting from the 9th century to the end of the Middle Ages, that is, to the 17th-18th centuries. It covers different provinces of historical Armenia – not only the current republic of Armenia but also various provinces of historical Armenia.

RFI: Where can one see these works of art, stone art, with their own eyes?

Patrick Donabedian: Mostly, in the territory of the current Republic of Armenia, but you may also find plenty outside its borders, mainly in eastern Turkey, Azerbaijan, a few in the south of Georgia, and a few more in the north of Iran.

RFI: When you were organizing and exhibiting photos at UNESCO, the organizers of the exhibition made some adjustments to it. What were these adjustments?

Patrick Donabedian: I have to say that everything had been agreed – the Armenian ambassador to France clearly told us that everything had been agreed in advance with the leadership of UNESCO, so we thought that everything would go very smoothly and that the exhibition would open without problems. But it turned out that literally a few hours before the opening of the exhibition, representatives of the UNESCO leadership arrived at the hall where the exhibition was being prepared and demanded very important changes.

RFI: How did they introduce themselves?

Patrick Donabedian: These were famous ladies and gentlemen, whose names I do not know for sure, from different departments of UNESCO.

RFI: And what did they ask you to do?

Patrick Donabedian: First of all, they asked to remove… They themselves removed a map, a semi-geographical, semi-political map where the locations of these various monuments were marked. Secondly, they demanded to remove all comments where the locations of each image, each photo were indicated. Thirdly, they demanded to remove the text that accompanied this exhibition just because one location was indicated there.

RFI: So they explained to you that this photo needs to be removed from the exhibition because it contained an inscription indicating the place where this historical monument, the khachkar, was located?

Patrick Donabedian: Yes, that’s right. The next step was to remove the UNESCO flag from the podium where we were supposed to give a speech. And finally, when the exhibition started, none of the representatives of the UNESCO leadership would arrive – that is, we started it without their participation.

RFI: Nevertheless, this exhibition can be seen at UNESCO but in an altered form, without the UNESCO flag. It is taking place in the UNESCO building located in Paris.

Patrick Donabedian: That’s right, it is in the UNESCO headquarters at Place de Fontenoy in the Miró Hall, the hall that bears the name of the famous artist Miró.

RFI: And the exhibition will be open until when?

Patrick Donabedian: It will be open until June 24.

The interlocutor of the RFI was Patrick Donabedian, one of the organizers of a photo exhibition on khachkars, ancient Armenian stones, at UNESCO, Paris.

Khachkar from the Sanahin monastery. 1215 RFI / Patrick Donabedian
General view of the cross-stone from the Goshavank monastery. Master Pavgos 1291 Armenia RFI / Patrick Donabedian
Khachkar – stone cross, master Pavgos, 1291 (fragment). Goshavank Monastery. Armenia RFI / Patrick Donabedian

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